I first met John Stacey in Chicago. He was there for a Ludwig advertisement photo session, and I was there on assignment from MD to interview several drummers. But John’s name was not on my list. When I arrived at the hotel, a group of drummers, including Stacey, were sitting in the lounge talking. After listening to their conversation for a while, I turned to John and said, “You must be one of those drummers I ‘ve heard a million times on records but never knew it was you. ” And he was. Hours later, after everyone else had gone to bed, Stacey and I were still awake. He was doing most of the talking and I was doing most of the listening. John is a great storyteller; he speaks colorfully and to the point. I was so fascinated by the guy that we got together the next morning for this interview.
John’s bread and butter comes from backing country artists in the Nashville studios. But if you ever have the chance to visit him at home, you’ll probably find him in his music room practicing drums along with recordings of Oscar Peterson, The Meters, or Tom Scott. During the week of the Country Music Association A wards, I had the good fortune to be in Nashville, where I got a chance to hear John with the Buddy Emmons Quartet. They played a set that ran the gamut from country waltzes to bebop renditions of “I’ve Got Rhythm. ” Stacey had the misfortune of having to play the house drumset, which was detuned and overmuffled to the point that it had all of the musical warmth and response of a baked potato. But Stacey played so well that no one really noticed.
John Stacey is a true professional who is respected by his peers as a musician and a gentleman. If you’re ever going somewhere to interview a group of drummers, check to see if Stacey is going to be there. And if he is, be sure to put his name on your list.
JS: I came to Nashville in 1969, and like other musicians who go there, my main concern was work. So I started traveling the road. I began working at the Grand Ole Opry with an artist named Ray Pillow, who, at the time, had never had a hit record. It was a job to keep me going, and help me get to know other musicians. Shortly after that I went to work for Skeeter Davis, who was on RCA at the time, and who had a hot country/pop record called “The End of the World.” I got good experience working with Skeeter but I didn’t have studio experience. No one was willing to take a chance hiring people who had no experience. Studio time was too expensive.
The first session I had was with Warner Mack. He had a song at the time called “The Bridge Washed Out.” He cut an album of all old Jimmy Reed songs. They wanted some blues players and I was becoming known around town as being a little too rock oriented to be a good country drummer. But Warner gave me my first real break by telling a producer, “I want to use John Stacey on drums, regardless.” The producer was Owen Bradley, who headed Decca Records and who owned the famous Bradley’s Barn studio. As a matter of fact, the guitar player, Dale Sellers, and myself were kind of new at the same time. We were cutting this album, and they had Grady Martin and Buddy Harman standing by in the studio in case we couldn’t hack it. As if there wasn’t enough pressure to start with!
My career kind of blossomed out from there. I got to know enough producers and people doing sessions who were in a hiring capacity. I worked the road for about five years with different artists. When I got married in ’76, I decided to quit traveling. I had more accounts than I realized. In the last few years I have worked with just about every artist in the business in some way or another, whether it is recording, T.V. or concert dates.
SF: Were you a versatile drummer when you moved to Nashville?
JS: I went to Nashville with a sack over my head actually, thinking that, “I’m a rock drummer and I’m belittling myself by going to a country town.” I could listen to certain parts of country music and just cringe. It just didn’t represent anything I stood for. However, after going there and meeting people—especially the musicians—on several occasions I went to jam sessions and the musicians blew me away. Nashville is full of great musicians and there are so many great drummers that I feel proud just to be a part of that whole situation.
SF: At what age did you realize that you wanted to be a drummer?
JS: Drumming was like a predestined thing for me. Even in grade school, my second grade teacher wrote on my report card, “Johnny seems to be more interested in drumming than in his studies. He’s always playing his pencils on the desk.” I’ve really never considered doing anything else.
SF: Who were you listening to or emulating in your rock?
JS: I don’t recall specifically listening to any one drummer. I just listened to rock music in general. I didn’t really know names of players back then. But I do recall names like Cozy Cole, Sandy Nelson, Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich.
SF: Jazz or rudimental drumming never entered the picture?
JS: No, not in the beginning. In the school and the area I was from, band was not big at all. Even now, I realize that the teachers we had back then were not all that qualified, compared to other areas. Probably if we’d had a better program, I would have gotten into it more.
I first really became interested in jazz and knowing the names of players when I went into the service. That got me out of West Virginia, to where something was going on musically. Bradshaw, West Virginia was certainly not a musical town. It had a few bluegrass bands, but that was all.
SF: Were you in the Air Force Band?
JS: Yes. When I first went in I was a mechanic on a C-130 aircraft. About midway I transferred into Special Services. When I got out, I almost re-enlisted in the Navy so I could go to the Navy School Of Music in Little Creek, Virginia. But I didn’t.
SF: Did you learn to read music while in the service?
JS: Yes. I also took private lessons from a couple of people. Gary Edwards, who is one of the unknown greats, taught me privately for seven or eight years. The other drummer was Ronnie Free. If you’ll get the old Mose Allison Creek Bank album, Ronnie played on that. He was another unknown great. Those guys really influenced me a lot as far as having love and dedication for being a drummer.
SF: You said that you had originally conceived of the Nashville musicians as “cornshuckers.” Why did you go there in the first place?
JS: I was leaving South Carolina and going to Atlanta. I thought I’d stop in Nashville and see this guy I knew, named George Rogers, who played steel guitar with a country artist named Jack Green. When I got there, George said, “I don’t see why you don’t stay here awhile and get a job. There are plenty of jobs around here.” He took me to a couple of shows backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Nothing really excited me musically at the time, but I thought, “Well, this would be some easy bucks.”
I was young and I was forming an opinion before I knew anything about that town. I feel privileged to be a part of it now. The players there, for the most part, are down to earth—no ego trips. Well, maybe some, but not like in other music towns I know.
SF: Do you know why drums, at one time, weren’t allowed on stage at the Grand Ole Opry?
JS: Traditionally, country music had no electric instruments or drums. It was a tradition that the old-timers didn’t want to break. I think they had a lot of control about who was even on the Opry. But you can only hold off for so long. A lot of people’s records had other instrumentation on them. When they’d play on the Opry, it wouldn’t sound like the same songs without the same instrumentation. Like everything else, you have to give in some to change. They’ve come a long way. James Brown and the Pointer Sisters have now made guest appearances on the Opry.
SF: People still say how the pop/country music today isn’t real country music.
JS: I can see that to a point, because I did get to Nashville at the time when the traditional was still there—the hard country, straight-ahead, beer-drinking, heartbreaking songs. I liked it. It’s like any other music. It’s going to change, regardless of what anybody thinks. It’s going to go on. I like the new country/rock. I don’t know what they’re labeling it now—urban country or what? But I think it’s great that it’s going in that direction.
SF: Did you find drummer/mentors when you moved to Nashville?
JS: When I first got there, I knew of Buddy Harman. He was in the control room, like I said, at the first session I played. They had the A team of session players at that session. I was in awe of everyone there. Owen Bradley was the biggest producer in town then. Here I was booked on my first session, and as if that wasn’t enough pressure on a new kid in town, I then walked in the control room and found Buddy Harman standing by in case I couldn’t hack it.
Everything went down well and I loosened up after a couple of songs. Junior Huskie, the bass player on the session, took me aside and said, “Look, don’t be intimidated by these people. You’re evidently a good player or you wouldn’t be here. Just play.” That loosened me up quite a bit. After proving myself at that first session, I was hired to do the rest of the album. I think that album has just been re-released on MCA records.
Before we finished the album that week, I had gained a lot of respect from these players. One of the reasons was probably because I could work under the pressure that they were putting on me. But it’s not like that now. That was back in the old days when they had a clique of musicians who did just about everything that came out of Nashville—the Nashville Sound, per se. But now there are independent producers, record companies, publishing companies, and people who come to town to spend their own money to record songs. Now there’s a mixture of musicians, and no one certain bunch of players gets all the work. That’s great. Nothing’s ever the same. It’s the different combinations of musicians that give music uniqueness and a creative quality. That’s why I say there’s a lot of work there for good musicians. It’s work on different levels, of course. All the major artists have certain people that they like to use. There are first-call players and second-call players. Everybody’s professional enough there so that it doesn’t matter. We appreciate the fact that we have certain accounts, but we also appreciate that there’s somebody else out there who can do the job too.
SF: I’ve heard session players express a fear that if a producer calls them for a date and they can’t make it, they won’t ever get calls from that producer again.
JS: I have heard that also, but in my case, that has never happened. It should never come to where you are required to drop everything that you have in order to just work exclusively for one producer. I wouldn’t deal that way with a producer. No one requires that of me. That circumstance doesn’t generally exist in Nashville, that I know of.
Another aspect of this is that, if a producer who I work for all the time calls another drummer to do a session, without even calling to see if I’m open, I can’t be mad. I respect a producer to know what kind of drummer is required for that session. I have to think, “Well, I didn’t get the call for a specific reason.” In turn, I want the same respect from a producer. It works out well that way.
SF: If I were a producer and had to make a decision between several leading drummers in Nashville, why would I want to choose John Stacey?
JS: Because a producer has worked with all of the different people enough to know what their best points are. I may be better in one area than the other drummers. In turn, they may be better in other areas than I am. The producer has a mental picture of this whole session before going into the studio. You would know what I am best at and that’s why you would call me.
SF: What do you feel you’re best at?
JS: I’m an old blueser at heart. I love blues; that’s where my real love is. I lean towards the soul or fatback side of playing. In essence, I feel that a producer calls me because of my ability to take a 2/4 basic rhythm, add self-expression, and make it into a 2/4 cookin’ rhythm.
SF: Outside of sessions, do you have opportunities to play what you want to play?
JS: Yes. There’s a well-known steel guitar player in town named Buddy Emmons. I do clinics and performances with him, and we do a lot of jazz tunes in our country-style way. I get to stretch out a little bit on that kind of stuff. But there are not a whole lot of blues bands around town. Even if they do have their headquarters in Nashville because of their agencies, they stay out on the road. I don’t travel the road anymore, and I don’t really get that kind of freedom on sessions. Occasionally we’ll get a bunch of players from town together in my music room at the house, and we’ll jam on some good old stuff. We just get some head arrangements and get it out of our system.
SF: Can you tell me about the Nashville “number system” they use in writing charts?
JS: Yes. Number I is always the root chord. Let’s say you are in the key of C, for simplicity’s sake. Number I is a C chord. Then you just go up the scale: D is 2, E is 3, F is 4, etc. If there is a minor or diminished chord, you signify it with the symbol by the number: D minor would be 2 – ; F diminished would be 4°. Of course, the secret is that you must train your ear to hear the changes as they pass in a song. Usually you hear the song one time to get the chords; that’s the reason this system is so beautiful, because it is so quick and precise. If a song has two bars of C chord, one bar of F and one bar of G the chart would read 1 1 4 5. If you change keys, no problem. There’s no need to rechart or transpose.
From a drummer’s point of view, I like the number system because I can see where the music is going in advance. If I didn’t have a chord chart, I wouldn’t know where the music’s going. Usually, if a song goes to a 4 or 5 chord and needs to build there, it helps you with dynamics. If there’s a diminished chord, then maybe you’ll play a little splash on the cymbal. If a producer wants me to play a fill going into the second eight bars of a certain section, if I know what chord that fill is going to be over, then I’ll tune my drums to that triad. If I’m filling on three drums and I’m going to a C chord, I’ll try to tune to C, E and G so that harmonically they’ll sound in tune with what I’m doing. That’s if you have enough time in the studio. A lot of times they can’t afford to take that time.
SF: Last night you were mentioning how often you have to overdeaden your drums in the studio. How then can you tune them to specific notes or chords?
JS: When you’re in that situation, you can’t, so you don’t even bother. You just basically fill using three tom-toms—they’re the lower end—and the tonality of the drums is “thud”-like, with no roundness or sustain. There are not a whole lot of those producers/engineer types left around now. They’re slowly fading away. All I can say to those types is that this is 1983 and they’ve got a 1969 ear. I’m not going to get into any hassles with engineers, because drummers are at their mercy. They can EQ you any way they want to on the board, no matter what your drums sound like in the studio. You’ve got to have a good relationship with the engineers. Some of them are kind of old-fashioned. You just have to learn to live with that on some sessions.
SF: Do you think that dead sound started happening because of a lack of knowledge in miking live drums?
JS: Right. I think that’s exactly why, because as time went on, they learned more and more. After having a track record of number one songs and considerably good drum sounds, it seemed unnatural to want to change anything. Why change something that was selling? But of course, as time went on the change was inevitable.
SF: How do you maintain your sound in the many different studios you have to work in?
JS: Good question. It’s difficult—very difficult. There are too many variables. When you leave one studio and go to another, the whole situation changes. The glass in the drum booth, the carpet thickness, the ceiling height, the width, the engineer—there are so many variables that there’s no way that a set of drums is going to sound the same in two different studios.
I consider the overall sympathetic ring of the drums to be part of the sound. The old way was to mike the drums with the mic’s at a high level. You really had to be clean and precise in your playing, but with virtually no dynamics. Buddy Harman was an expert at that. That was one style.
Now they cut the levels down on the mic’s. You’re in the drum booth with baffles and everything around you so that you’re not going to leak onto other tracks. The levels are cut down on the mic’s so you can play harder, but then all of the sympathetic ring and any little overtones that come out of that room are not going to pick up on the mic’s, because of the low levels. This makes the engineer and producer happy, and still gives me the freedom to play with expression. Noise gates are also used, but I prefer not to use them.
I’ve used the old-style method where they’d have the mic’ level so hot that, when you’d play a tom-tom fill and end up on the floor tom, the note from the floor tom would “sweep” through a bass guitar note. It would sound like the bass guitar player was out of tune. After checking the tracks, they found, to their surprise, that there wasn’t a tuning problem after all. The tom tone, which just happened to be in the same register, was sweeping through the bass player’s note, making the intonation problem.
SF: Who are some drummers whose sound you admire?
JS: Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Smith, Kenny Malone, Jerry Kroon, Jimmy Hyde, and Larrie Londin, to name a few.
SF: What do you consider the difference in playing live and playing in the studio?
JS: When I play live, I feel that everyone is inspiring each other. I may play something to inspire the pianist, who will, in turn, play something to inspire the bass player, and so on. Then, on really good nights— not every night—there are times that you remember when, man, everything was perfect. Everybody’s one, just like we all thought alike.
In the studio, you go in and they’ve got you secluded in a room. The producer is in the engineer’s booth. They’ve got a talkback and everybody can hear them. But if I have a question, I’m in this drum booth bending over, hollering through my snare mic’, trying to get somebody’s attention. Of course, the guitar player is running down lines with the steel guitar player or the strings. It seems like the rhythm guitar player is always tuning. The piano player is playing chords. I’m really excluded from the rest of the band. Then there’s a little glass window that you try to look through, that’s got reflections on it. You look to see if they’re looking back, but you can’t even tell if their heads move. It’s an uncomfortable situation, to say the least. And when you play, you’re basically doing rhythm tracks of charts that they already have ideas on. You can be creative to a certain extent.
When you start running the song down, usually the artist is there, but they’re not really trying to do the voice part. The artist is just putting a reference vocal down. Everybody’s decided where they’re going to fill and what licks they’re going to do. They run through the basic rhythm track, but you don’t usually know what the string, vocal or horn section may be doing later at an overdub session. The days of full sessions, where everyone is doing their parts at the same time, are few and far between.
I hear records that I’ve done and think, “Gee, if I’d known that the strings were going to do that, I’d have played something different.” You have no control over it because they’re not there at the session to influence you.
SF: Do you have specific albums that you enjoy listening to over and over again?
JS: Yeah, I go through phases where I listen to current rock or country albums. Now I’m more into jazz—Oscar Peterson. I guess I didn’t listen enough to him while I was growing up. You’re talking about someone who has complete knowledge and control of his instrument. This guy amazes me.
SF: Knowing the respect you have for the great jazz players like Rich and Bellson, do you think they could do the type of session work that you do?
JS: Well, knowing how those guys play, the natural thing is to think, “Of course they can do it.” But after talking to those kinds of players, most seem to feel that they couldn’t. They’re just not geared for that. Another point to consider is whether those players would want to do it. What we’re doing in Nashville is a lot harder than you would think. It’s deep concentration and making yourself not play, maybe, everything you feel. You never can second guess producers; just when you think you know what they want, that’s what they don’t want. The same way with the engineers—just when you think that’s what the sound should be, they change it. It’s funny that way. It’s harder for the jazz players to restrict themselves to playing certain lines and basic rhythm patterns. In turn, it would be technically impossible for someone like me to do what the jazz musicians are doing. Knowing your limitations is important.
SF: What is your basic studio drum setup?
JS: I’m now playing Ludwig drums. My bass drum is 16×22, and my concert power toms are 9 x 8 and 9 X 10. Also, I use the 11×12 and 12×13 power toms mounted on my bass drum, and two floor toms—14×14 or 16×16—according to what I need. I’m using three snare drums: the Colliseum snare, which is 8 x 14 with a P87 strainer; a 5 x 14 Rock Concert snare with a P70 strainer; and a 6 1/2 X 14 Rock Concert with a P70 strainer. These are all four-ply wood drums. I use a variety of sizes of sticks.
SF: How about your cymbals?
JS: All of my cymbals are either medium or heavy Avedis Zildjians. I’m using a 20″ ride, a 13″ and 16″ splash, medium weight, and then another heavy pair of 13″ and 16″ splash cymbals. My hi-hats are 14″.
SF: Have you ever broken a cymbal?
JS: No, not exactly. I’ve got a cymbal that cost me—you’ll like this—about $900. I bought a ride cymbal when I was about 19. I was working in a club at the time. They had just come out with the sizzle cymbals. I’d tried hanging a bathtub chain, taping pennies, and the whole bit. But when I saw the rivets in the cymbals, I knew that was the thing to do. A friend of mine said, “Look, you can put rivets in a cymbal yourself.” He marked them off for me and showed me how to use a rivet gun. I took the cymbal off the stand and went to the club where I was working that night. The club had a lighted dance floor. I was so excited about the fact that I could put those rivets in myself that I was really anxious to start working on it. I turned the cymbal over and drilled the holes, and at the same time, I was drilling holes into that lighted dance floor. The club owner held it out of my salary. I think it came to about $900 that I had to pay for that floor.
SF: That’s a good story. How about the drumheads you use in the studio?
JS: I use several combinations of heads. I like the Ludwig heads because they come in several thicknesses. I like the heavy clear Rockers on top because they’re a little thicker than a Pinstripe head. I use Ludwig’s Ensemble medium coated on the bottoms of my toms. On top I’m using the clear heavy Rocker heads. I get that gutsy tone I like with this combination.
SF: Are there any technical exercises that you would suggest for anyone pursuing a career as a studio drummer?
JS: First of all, you’ve got to practice and think time, because if you can’t play time, no matter what your technical abilities are, you won’t work in the studio. Also, I’m a rudimental freak; rudiments come up so many times in all types of playing. Those are two of the most important things I would tell anyone interested in studio playing. I learned to play certain licks when I was a kid, before I had any technical training. Hell, my sticking patterns were wrong, and when I went into the Air Force, I had to go back and redo just about everything I’d learned as a kid. My teacher would show me something and I’d say, “I’ve been doing it like this.” He’d say, “Well you can keep doing it that way, but the correct way is this.” I was so thick headed. My attitude was, “Well, what’s the difference if I do it my way, as long as it sounds the same?” But I soon realized that without the correct sticking patterns, your playing will definitely suffer. Now I am especially aware of how important it is, because in the studio, where everything is mic’d individually, your mistakes become very obvious!
SF: What’s ahead for John Stacey?
JS: Musically speaking, I’ve reached some of my goals. I always want to be a better player; I play and practice every day. I want to be as good as I can be in my profession. I don’t feel like I am yet. I learn more each day. I’m continuously calling cohorts who do the same thing I do, and they give me input on their side of it. I try to do the same. I’m also learning more about the business end of music. My goal now is mainly to try to keep doing better and better—not materially, but musically. That’s where I’m headed.